My great-great-great grandfather, Captain Thomas Edward Gordon, 14th Light Dragoons, had the unusual distinction of fighting in the Punjab War of 1848-9, the Indian Mutiny of 1857-8 and – as a colonial volunteer - the New Zealand War in 1866, and of thus being one of a small number of men to receive the medals for all three campaigns. Skelton and Bullock’s Gordons under Arms (Aberdeen University Press, 1912) summarises his British army career as follows, based on the biographical details in Hart’s Army List of 1849-63:
1848, October 17, Cornet, 14th Light Dragoons. 1848-9, served in Punjab campaign, including battles of Chillianwallah and Goojerat, pursuit of enemy across the Jhelum and of the Afghans over the Indus, through the Khyber Pass (medal and clasps). 1850, September 17, Lieutenant. 1857, September 18, Captain. 1858-9, served with Central India field force under Sir Hugh Rose, present at siege and capture of Chandeyrie, siege and capture of Jhansi, battle of Koonch, affair during advance on Calpee and action of Golowlee, capture of Calpee and pursuit, action of Morar, several engagements on the heights before Kotakaserai and Gwalior, recapture of the fort and city of Gwalior and pursuit of rebels (Despatches, medal and clasp). 1862, exchanged to 6th Inniskilling Dragoons; retired.
The involvement of the 14th Light Dragoons in these two wars is detailed in two books by former commanders of the regiment, Colonel Henry Blackmore Hamilton’s Historical Record of the 14th (King’s) Hussars, 1715-1900 (the regiment was renamed Hussars in 1861), and The Ramnuggur Boys: 14th/20th King’s Hussars 1715-1992 by Colonel John Pharo-Tomlin, the title being derived from the nickname given to the regiment after a famous charge at the Battle of Ramnuggur on 22 November 1848. Gordon joined the regiment as a 20-year-old a month before the battle and was present in all subsequent actions involving the regiment. The Punjab War – also known as the Second Sikh War – resulted in the annexation of the Punjab as part of British India, at a time when India was still nominally ruled by the East India Company but the British government was increasingly involved, with Crown forces such as the 14th Light Dragoons fighting alongside the company’s regiments.
Like Ramnuggur, Chillanwallah and Goojerat (the spellings are those of the time) were huge set-piece battles, in which the East India Company infantry still used flintlock muskets and the cavalry charged with sabre and lance, little changed from the time of Waterloo. The battle of Goojerat was one of the few occasions when the British inflicted a resounding defeat on the Afghans, who had crossed the Indus to fight alongside the Sikh empire. A particular fascination for me of Gordon’s involvement in this war is the image of dragoons chasing the Afghans up the Khyber Pass, only seven years after a large part of the Army of the Indus has been annihilated in the Pass during the First Afghan War, with only one British survivor making it out to bring news of the catastrophe.
The regiment distinguished itself again during the numerous bloody engagements of the Indian Mutiny in the Central India campaign, when cavalry charges resulted in many casualties among the enemy. Captain Gordon is noted in both regimental histories for being Mentioned in Despatches during the capture of Koonch (at the time, some thirty years before the inception of the Distinguished Service Order, a ‘Mention’ was the only accolade available for a junior officer, apart from the recently founded Victoria Cross). In his official despatch on the action (reproduced in Hamilton, op.cit.), dated Camp Goolowlee on 24 May 1858, the field force commander, Major-General Sir Hugh Rose, describes how, on observing a ‘large number of Rebel infantry, strongly posted in cultivated ground’, one of his Brigadiers
… moved up Captain Field’s Battery with Captains Thompson’s and Gordon’s Troops of Her Majesty’s 14th Light Dragoons, and a Troop of the 3rd Regiment Hyderabad Cavalry to dislodge them. The Enemy held the position obstinately, and it was not until a portion of the Infantry of the 2nd Brigade moved down on them from another direction, that they retreated, when Captain Gordon, whom I beg to recommend to His Excellency for his conduct on this occasion, with his Troop and the Cavalry above-mentioned, charged and broke the mass, cutting up several of them; topes of trees favoured the escape of the remainder.
No photographs are known of Gordon during his army service, but a painting exists in a private collection showing him sitting in front of his tent during the Mutiny. The artist was Lieutenant Robert Baigrie, a fellow-officer about the same age as Gordon who was Sir Hugh Rose’s Acting Deputy Assistant Quartermaster General. Baigrie was mentioned by Rose in the same despatch after the Battle of Koonch, for having been ‘ … severely wounded by a sword-cut which all but severed two fingers from his hand; notwithstanding he gallantly continued during the action to discharge his duties with as much efficiency as before.’ Fortunately the wound did not end his artistic endeavours, for as well as a successful career in the Bombay Quartermaster’s Department– ending as a Colonel with a C.B. – he went on to see his drawings of the Abyssinian campaign of 1867-8 appear in The Illustrated London News. A catalogue of his work was published in 2007 to accompany an exhibit of his work at the Macmullen Museum of Art at Boston College, which acquired the collection (Sharf, F.A., Abyssinia, 1867-1868: Artists on Campaign).
After leaving the army in 1862, Thomas moved to Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, to join his father James Gillespie Gordon, a Scottish merchant who had made his fortune in Benares (where Thomas had been born in 1828), as well as Thomas’ brother William, also a former cavalry officer. In 1859 James had purchased 13,500 acres that became Clifton Station, part of which continues to be the home of his Gordon descendants in New Zealand to this day.
On 20 August 1863 Thomas was commissioned by the Governor as a Captain to command the Napier Volunteer Cavalry, having been asked to raise a troop of mounted men on his arrival in New Zealand. The incentive was renewed conflict with Maori groups that had taken place in the North Island since 1860, though in the event the troop was disbanded and it was not until the ‘Hauhau’ disturbance of October 1866 at Hawke’s Bay that Gordon was called to action. A war-party of some 80 Hauhau had threatened to attack Napier, the local town, and Thomas was asked to reform his men and join a force of militia and loyal Maori who were being mustered for an attack. In the early morning of 11 October, prior to his arrival, the main body of the force confronted the war-party at Omarunni, and in the ensuing gun battle 21 Hauhau were killed, 30 wounded - some of them dying later in hospital - and the remainder captured, for the loss of one militia man, one loyal Maori and several men wounded. Meanwhile Captain Gordon and some 25 mounted volunteers had taken possession of several large canoes at a landing spot on the coast, taking the men with them into custody, and on arrival at Omarunni after the battle they rode after a number of the Hauhau who had fled, recapturing eleven of them and suffering one volunteer having his horse shot out from under him. An eyewitness report of these events can be read online in The Hawke's Bay Herald of 15 October, and an authoritative historical account in James Cowan's The New Zealand Wars: a History of the Maori Campaign and the Pioneering Period (1922).
In later years Thomas enjoyed shooting, particularly pig-hunting on his land in Hawke’s Bay, and also golf, a passion of his after he left management of Clifton Station to others and moved to Bideford in Devon close to Westward Ho!, the famous golf links. In 1906 he was one of an ‘Octogenarian Foursome’ in a competition that was followed avidly by The Times and in newspapers around the world. One of his sons, Edward, also became a cavalry officer, serving with the 9th Lancers during the Boer War and also being Mentioned in Despatches; his biography can also be found in Gordons under Arms. Thomas lived at Porthill, a large country house overlooking Bideford, where my grandfather as a boy visited him many times with his mother – Thomas’ granddaughter, through his oldest daughter Agnes Georgina – before Thomas’ death in 1917, aged 89.
I’m very grateful to my cousin Angus Gordon, of Clifton Station, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, also a descendant of Thomas, for giving me a copy of his book In the Shadow of the Cape: A history of the Gordon family of Clifton, the basis for my account of Thomas’ early years in New Zealand.